Commander Stern presented this Deployment Brief to the Naval S11bmari11e league’s Annual Symposium 011 October 23, 2008.
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for the privilege and the honor of allowing me to speak to you today.
TOPEKA has had a good year, highlighted by a Western Pacific deployment completed last April. The ship has had many successes and while I take some personal pride in each, I do feel it important to give credit, where credit is due. Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I sec further, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” I’ve heard that quote several times before in talks such as this; typically the point being made is that the speaker or writer, after achieving some amount of success in some particular endeavor, gives credit to those who contributed to developing, teaching and mentoring them, allowing them to go on to success. On one hand, I will be no different. I will certainly tell you that while in command, whatever success I have had certainly is owed to the great leaders who I have been fortunate to learn from throughout my career-the many inspirational commanding officers I was lucky to work for as well as many other great Submarine Force leaders, ranging from enlisted instructors in the various schools I’ve attended all the way up to the flag officers who have shaped the Submarine Enterprise throughout the years. As a matter of fact, the next speaker, Admiral Hilardes, was Engineer on GURNARD when I reported aboard as a young ensign for my first submarine assignment. The positive impact he had on my development as a leader is something that I’m sure I draw from even today as a Commanding Officer. However, today I would like to focus on another set of giants, whose strong shoulders have truly enabled TOPEKA ‘s success-my extraordinary crew. Like every parent that thinks their kids arc the smartest and most beautiful and most handsome in the world, I’m sure every CO thinks he has a particularly great wardroom and crew. In some sense they would each be right-we all have fantastic crews of well-trained hard-working Sailors that do amazing things every day to maintain and operate our great submarines. But, I can’t speak for all of them, so instead I will spend the next few minutes discussing some of the things my great team of giants have done in making TOPEKA successful.
As you know, it’s all about the deployment. The rest of our time back in homeport is spent preparing the ship and the crew for the next deployment. The crew worked hard during the various training events we conducted prior to WESTPAC. That hard work and preparation often paid off while we were actually forward deployed when on many occasions, I thought to myself, “Good thing we did that in the trainer or in our training!”. It wasn’t always easy, either. For example, at one point we were scheduled to get underway to get some practice tracking submarines against one of the other boats in the Squadron acting as our target. When an emergent material problem caused us to be stuck in port that week instead of underway honing our tracking skills, we decided to make the best of a frustrating situation and use the On Board Trainer (or, 081) mode of our sonar system to get the practice we needed. This system worked great injecting real looking and sounding contacts into the sonar system and allowed us to accomplish some good quality training. Nothing is as good as the real thing, but this was a reasonable substitute. My guys took it seriously and made the best of it-they even manned all the watches in their underway coveralls so that if you were to have stepped into the Control Room from other parts of the ship, which at that time had the industrial feel of a submarine deeply involved in a maintenance period, you would have not only felt like you were watching an actual submarine underway, but you would have also been convinced that we were really tracking an adversary.
Something else memorable and worth mentioning about my pre-deploymcnt training was having the privilege of a grey beard -a retired senior submarine officer -oversee our Attack Center training for one whole week. The credibility, wisdom, and technical savvy Captain Oliver provided were invaluable. One of the scenarios we did during that week seemed a bit odd-it wasn’t the usual scenario I was used to seeing in the countless Attack Centers I had previously done throughout the years. But, we did the scenario, collected our lessons learned when complete, and moved on to the next training event. Imagine my surprise, when months later while conducting real-world operations we were faced with nearly that very same situation. That operation went extremely well for us and I am sure that no small part of our success was due to Squadron Eleven’s, Submarine Learning Center’s and Captain Oliver’s relevant, realistic and somewhat prescient training scenario.
As we prepared to leave for Westpac, I was told that Admiral McAncny’s mantra was that you needed to be able to fight-hurt while deployed. In other words, you couldn’t always expect to pull into port to fix material problems, sometimes you needed to figure out how to stay at sea, work around the problem, and continue carrying out your assigned mission. My crew took that direction to heart. While the list of innovative, safe and effective ways in which my guys did this is long, I would like to highlight just one as an example:
As we transited across the Pacific toward Westpac, the pipes for the system that provides depth indication for my Control Room became heavily fouled with sea growth, causing the indication to become extremely sluggish. We tried the usual remedies such as blowing the lines with air and cleaning the installed strainers, but nothing seemed to help. We had no reliable indication of depth and I knew going to periscope depth without broaching would be extremely challenging, if not impossible. Stealth being the hallmark of submarine operations-I knew that just wouldn’t do. Knowing we had to somehow figure it out and flight-hurt, my guys came up with a great solution. We have a totally independent piping system, also connected to the sea, for the use of my 3″ Launchers down in the Countenneasures space just forward of the Crew’s Mess. We removed our master shallow-water depth gauge from the ship control panel, up in the Control Room, and re-connected it to a valve down in the Countenncasures space. W c then rigged bright lights and a video camera mounted upside down facing the depth gage and connected it using a really long cable to a flat panel LCD display which we mounted over the ship control panel, back up in the Control Room. This arrangement allowed us to safely and effectively conduct periscope depth operations over the next three months, including during sensitive operations. Some of my guys took the Admiral’s direction directly to heart. After six hours of watch, looking up at that screen mounted so far up on the panel, the helmsmen would sometimes get sore necks-I guess they were truly and literally flghting-/hurt!
Like many in this room, I have sailed in seas all around the world during all the seasons of the year. But, I must say, I have rarely seen weather as consistently bad as during this deployment. It seemed like we operated in the same general region as one typhoon or another for most of the six months. And, for a submariner, high sea states are more than just a nuisance leading to upset stomachs. Operating in high seas is particularly challenging for the ship control party to stay at periscope depth without broaching the ship and maintaining our stealth, and my guys did a great job of doing this for weeks at time in sea states that make my stomach turn just thinking back to those difficult times. I think their success is particularly commendable given our work-around depth indication as well as the ship’s depth control system also being in reduced status-resulting in that system, which can sometimes help with depth control during particularly challenging situations, being only available for limited use.
Not only were the seas rough, but on most days haze, rain and fog limited visibility to no more than a few thousand yards and at times it was near zero.
Like most WESTPAC deployers we operated in very shallow water during significant portions of our deployment. To put how really shallow it was into perspective, we spent weeks at a time in water significantly shallower than my ship is long. While submarine operations by definition incur some risk, just by their very nature, we take precautions to ensure the ship is kept safe-especially so when we do things like transit into shallow water. In one particular case, our mission had us attempting a transit of a new, unexplored part of the area in which we were operating, in what we knew would be extremely shallow water. We took additional precautions, and we were able to keep the ship safe. However, no nautical chart is perfectly accurate, and indeed we ended up coming across a spot in which the chart listed water deep enough to transit through. But, it actually turned out to be too shallow, and when we received yellow and then red soundings our pre-deployment training and the outstanding response by my watch team enabled us to conduct a sharp tum and head back into deeper water-just like we had practiced so many times before. The only casualty out of that event was my already thinning hair getting a little bit thinner!
Submarines operate in the littorals and the challenges associated with being in that environment are not terribly new or particularly interesting by themselves. However, combined with the horrible weather and the fact that we operated in some areas with little Submarine Force experience, the challenge of operating in close proximity to literally thousands of contacts in only a several week period was particularly keen. Considering the shallow waler we were in, the I 0 to 20 or more contacts surrounding our ship at times within just a few thousand yards, with visibility that made it hard to hold more than just a few of them visually, it was extremely challenging and again, my team of giants performed superbly. Additionally, we often had to cross though, or even operate for periods of time in, busy merchant transit lanes. Automatic Identification System (or A/S) provided great information on most of the merchants and was a fantastic tool for helping us to drive to avoid them. I also quickly learned that many of the fishermen and trawlers also operate inside the merchant transit lanes-profit motive dictates that they go where the fish are. One thing that added to the challenge, however, was that the merchants, who lose money when they slow down, would maintain their speed, and just drive around the fishing vessels with small course changes-something I just hadn’t really thought about before. I learned that lesson the hard way when on one occasion, we detected a merchant on AIS at long range, but with a very narrow angle on the bow-in other words he was heading right at us-and, at high speed. No problem, however; at that range it would be easy, even at the slow speeds we travel at periscope depth, to drive off of his track and maintain a nice comfortably long range as he would pass us by. But, it seemed every time we turned to drive off of his track, the merchant would turn to point virtually right at us-and getting closer and closer by the minute. Eventually, it dawned on me that the merchant was dodging fishermen, many of which I just couldn’t see at that range. Finally, we went deep-not very deep of course, remember, we were in extremely shallow water as it was, and we drove fast to stay clear of the approaching ship. Again, my crew acted just as they had been trained and kept the ship safe.
While deployed, TOPEKA and other units of the Pacific Fleet, including the KITTY HA WK Strike Group, took part in a major combined Japanese and U.S. Navy exercise called ANNUALEX. The exercise was a great opportunity to operate with the ships and submarines of one of our closest partners in the region.
The crew worked hard on the deployment, so it was always nice to be able to unwind and enjoy liberty in the wonderful countries we had the good fortune to visit. Port visits included Yokosuka, Okinawa, and Sascbo, Guam, Subic Bay, and a brief stop in Pearl Harbor. Always mindful of how critically important it was to be good ambassadors in representing our country while on liberty, the crew again performed superbly and the visits were conducted without incident in every case.
TOPEKA was among the first ships to conduct a port visit to the Philippines in a number of years and it proved to be a great time for the crew. Combining inexpensive food and drink with tropical paradise-like weather made for great liberty. As a matter of fact, the crew had such a good time at a local beach club that we were invited to leave a sign on one of the doors to mark the visit for all eternity.
Like all deployers, the crew was anxious to participate in community relations (or, COMREL) projects whenever possible-events in which a ship’s crew goes out into the city we arc visiting and does some sort of work project-for example, cleaning and painting a church, repairing the roof on a medical clinic, or in this particular case, conducting minor repairs to the playground equipment at a Japanese orphanage in Yokosuka, Japan, as well as just giving the kids some much-needed attention. I’m not sure who got more out of those interactions-the Japanese orphans or my crew. It always impressed me and warmed my heart when each time we began arranging for a community relations event, we found we had many more volunteers than the project could logistically handle.
Bad weather isn’t the only unfortunate thing about leaving for deployment in October. The crew missed being at home with their loved ones for holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. But, the cooks prepared fantastic meals on those days that I’m sure would put some 5-star restaurants to shame, the wives sent bags full of goodies to decorate the ship in the theme of each holiday, and the crew made the best of each occasion. While we all missed our families, the crew’s camaraderie and esprit d’corps was impressive and each one of those days was a memorable occasion in which we all managed to have some fun.
After returning from the deployment, TOPEKA recently conducted the majority of the submarine midshipmen operations for the Pacific Fleet. Over about a five week period, the crew showed over 560 Naval Academy and ROTC Midshipmen what submarines were all about. While the routine of surfacing, transiting into port to conduct the personnel transfer and then diving later in the same day, every day, including most weekend days, for all those weeks began to feel like ground-hog day, the crew rose to the occasion. That routine is particularly tough on the crew, so you can only imagine my pride, when even near the end of that time, after all those difficult days, I still would read feedback from almost every single midshipman offering lavish praise on the crew for their contagiously positive attitude and impressive professionalism.
Shortly after taking command a little over a year ago, we went north to participate in an exercise with the Canadians and to enjoy several days of liberty in Victoria, British Columbia. Following the port visit, I was lucky enough to get to do in command something I had never had the good fortune to do previously in my career: TOPEKA was assigned to conduct a Service Weapons Test and a Sinking Exercise (or SlNKEX) in which the ship shoots real (non-exercise) torpedoes with actual explosive warheads installed. We were originally scheduled to participate in the SINKEX of the ex-HMCS HURON, but the surface ship gunfire and aircraft bombing proved too lethal, too quickly, and she sank before we had our chance to shoot, scheduled for later in the day. Fortunately, a contingency plan was in place and we successfully shot two M K-48 ADCAPs-onc against a target buoy and the other against a decommissioned diesel submarine, the ex-USS SAILFISH. It was a testament to the crew that the SINKEX was conducted flawlessly, and even the most junior guy on board could not help but beam with excitement and pride as we could hear, and feel, the loud thud as the torpedo did it’s job and then we listened solemnly on sonar as SAILFISH sank into the depths.
When we were first told we would be sinking the SAILFISH, some quick research revealed that this SAILFISH, SS 572, was the second warship to bear the name. The first SAILFISH, however, had a particularly interesting history, which I couldn’t help but read as well. Originally built and commissioned as the SQUALUS, which infamously sunk and was later raised, she was repaired and re-commissioned as SAILFISH and went on to conduct 12 World War Two patrols. During our WESTPAC much later in the year, the SINKEX we had conducted was far from my mind, but later on WESTPAC while conducting operations in many of the very same waters that the first SAILFISH conducted her wartime missions over 65 years earlier, I couldn’t help but remember the words I’d read describing the “tremendous seas in the midst of typhoons”, “the mountainous sea state” and the “dreadful visibility.” Herc we were in the same places, enduring the same terrible weather conditions! It gave me a comforting sense of continuity and a connection with our proud past. I’m sure that while to men like Lockwood, Gilmore and Fluckcy our flat panel computer displays on the CONN might look foreign and somewhat unrecognizable, I’m equally sure however, that they would immediately recognize the same professionalism, the same courage and the same tenacity in my crew of giants that they saw in their men so long ago.
Thank you again for this opportunity to speak and I look forward to answering any questions you might have during my remaining time.